Okay. I could have titled this better. Don’t worry about that.
I’m concerned for your future live music experiences: they are in grave danger of becoming tedious and wearisome affairs whose facilitators’ bad posture and lack of communication with the audience threaten to forsake you, the paying attendee, the party-goer, the dancer, the let-looser.
Somewhere between the era of LP-addled radio stations where disc jockeys sold us on their favorite music (or that which record companies wanted us to buy), and the evolution of the MacBook Pro as a musical instrument, the attention of the audience wandered, listened to whatever happened to be on the station or stage. We the audience, lacking direction, sought pints of beer and electronic cigarettes to complement our inhibitions around dancing our asses off.
Luckily, this was not entirely our fault: massive collections of sheep-like humans who are corralled by electronic sound waves into the fenced and walled barriers around stages designed to keep our attention (bright, moving lights; BIG sound; pretty people) have been deprived recently of an important element left to rock, metal, and hip-hop.
The vital element of conversation as it pertains to musical performance determines the connection between musician and audience.
When I had a narrower taste in music, and attended death, black, or doom metal shows every week (a wide diversification, I know – but listen to Burzum, then Cattle Decapitation, and you’ll know, too) – to keep in line with elitist opinions, add to my arsenal of black t-shirts, save money on import fees on CDs which at the time were not distributed in the US, and – most importantly – to spend as many sets as physically possible rocking out in the mosh pit, I learned how to converse with my favorite musicians, whether they were on stage, or smoking pot behind the venue.
They wanted chaos in the audience, and if we were still, they would ask for it. Demand, at times. We’d form circle pits and walls of death (where the crowd divided, each half moving toward a side of the floor, then, at the drop, ran toward each other at full speed), ecstatic for the opportunity to release whatever angst, anger, sadness, or joy we’d been carrying. Sometimes, it was like Fight Club, except with a better soundtrack.
The models of character musicians to me were invaluable: grown men – and some women – dressed in black leather with metal spikes jutting from their wrists, necks, and shins, who wore masks and face paint and whose vocal cords were formed more like steel cables than organic tissue – intertwined examples of owning their musicianship and theatrical performance. The blast beat or drone of the music was but one element of the shows, and so inspired by that madness and musical alchemy was the 17-year-old Sean that I decided that, while I had only a smattering of desire to someday partake in being on stage, I wanted to be a part of it by way of wanting the sound to befit the grandiosity of the performance. In the midst of my love affair with all musical things heavy, dark, and metallic, I went to school for audio engineering to learn how to polish the monolithic shows that had so enraptured me.
Fast forward ten years.
Needless to say, sound engineering and manipulation gained me an appreciation for music and performance that I had never before been open to. Interning at recording studios and running live sound squashed every cultural attachment I had to the correlation of my personal identity and the genres of music I listened to. Riding my bike around the playa of Black Rock City, as one example, caught me loving punk and metal again, and by night partner blues fusion dancing to Random Rab, or Kyrstyn Pixton.
What confuses me now is that when I attend shows by electronic musicians in Portland, the audience demographic transmogrifies into a beer-drinking, bearded man who does not move his body under any circumstances whatever. At a downtempo set on the playa, it is guaranteed that most people dance. The same set at a club in Portland will see a dance floor of still humans with pints in one hand, the other hand in a pocket. Talking amongst themselves.
This sounds like judgment; in truth it is curiosity laden with my annoyance with having not the space to dance, and wondering, who pays $14 to stand there and stare at a plain-dressed kid hunched over his laptop? Because I do that at home, but the lights on my stereo are equally entertaining.
Every concert and show I’ve attended and performed (which together number in hundreds) has taught me one succinct lesson: the energy on stage and the energy in the audience mirror one another. Presenting one’s music can be a performance (done internally, for the self), or a conversation for and with those whom support your art. If you want the audience to dance, say so. Into the mic, Say more than Thank You, Do You Want One More?
This is an open request to performers, particularly those who employ computers as their instruments: pay attention to your presentation, and to your audience. Music is but one element of the performance. I will enjoy the show so much more if I experience your soul interwoven with it. Set your computer higher; stand up straight. Keep a mic nearby. It is your responsibility as performer to source only 50% of the set’s energy – the rest belongs to the crowd.
If you’re not feeling it, be assured that neither are we; and if we’re not, then for whom are you performing, and with whom are you conversing?